The Man In The Iron Mask

Of all the mysterious figures in history, no one has sparked more interest, and provided such little detail, as the Man in the Iron Mask. Despite more than 300 years of puzzle, conjecture and uncertainty, there are precious few clues to his identity. The man is a enigmatic character who has been the subject of a classic novel by Alexandre Dumas and countless feature films. His place in the public’s mind is assured, but despite arousing such popular interest, no crucial revelations have been discovered. All we know is that he was a distinguished prisoner, and from the moment he was imprisoned, he had to hide his identity behind a strange mask. The Man in the Iron Mask was first imprisoned sometime in the 1660s, probably towards the end of the decade.

He was initially jailed at the fortress of Pignerol in the French Alps, where he was guarded by Benigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, who would continue to be his personal jailer until the mysterious man’s death. He was transferred to the nearby prison in Exiles in 1681, and then to the island castle of Sainte Marguerite in 1687. It was during this second change of jail that the first witness account reported seeing a prisoner in an iron mask.

In 1698 Saint-Mars was made the governor of the Bastille, the famous Parisian prison. Consequently, the masked man moved to the French capital and more reports, this time of a man in a black velvet mask, were recorded. He is said to have died in the Bastille in 1703. The actual details we have of his life are extremely scant. A death certificate states the prisoner’s name was Marchioly, and he was about 45 years old when he died. This seems unlikely, particularly as he had been held in captivity for almost 40 years. One man who initiated many theories about the Bastille’s mysterious inmate was another, later, resident of the jail – the philosopher and writer Voltaire who had spoken to the man’s captors. He revealed that the man had been in jail since 1661, and was young, tall and handsome when first captured. He was said to dress in exquisite clothing, had refined hobbies and tastes and, crucially, he looked very much like a member of the French Royal Family.

Although Voltaire was a known adversary of French Royalty, this suggestion that the prisoner was possibly a twin brother of King Louis XIV lingered, and was adopted by Dumas for his novel. Despite the fact that an identical physical resemblance to the king would account for the man being permanently masked, it seems unlikely that such a monumental fact could have stayed a secret. However, the king’s birth did have some unusual qualities, and there is a strong possibility that the prisoner may have been an illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. Other theories for the masked man’s identity include that he was actually the playwright Moliére, who had been imprisoned for fear of corrupting the king. This can be discounted because Moliére would have been too old to fit the dates recorded.

There are also suggestions that hemay have been Nicolas Fouquet, a envied wealthy French nobleman, or even an illegitimate lovechild of Charles II of England. What cannot be in doubt is the reverence with which he was treated. Saint-Mars was known to call him, ‘my prince’, and his guarding soldiers referred to him as ‘Tower’. It has even been revealed that the soldiers would often remove their hats when entering his chamber, and would stand silently until the man motioned them to sit.

In 1711, Princess Palatine, the king’s sister-in-law, wrote a letter about how the man was flanked at all times by two musketeers who had orders to immediately kill him if he removed his mask. Similarly, letters between the king and Saint-Mars have revealed that the prisoner should be executed straight away if he tried to talk or communicate with anybody. Certainly, the prisoner warranted special attention, whoever he was. Many experts have wondered why, if he was such a threat to the French Royal Family, he was not just executed anyway. However, the fact that was allowed to live, but only behind a mask, perhaps does indicate he had an interesting relationship with the monarchy. The identity of the Man in the Iron Mask is now a fact lost in time, and the true story of his life is probably a tale we will never fully know.

(Source : 100 Most Strangest Mysteries by Matt Lamy)


Anonymous said...

The secret of the Man in the Iron Mask was passed from Louis XIV, who told the prisoner's identity to Philippe II, Duc d'Orleans--the King's nephew and Regent for the 4 year old Louis XV. Philippe II supposedly told his daughter but she was a notorious alcoholic and her account is dubious but it bolsters the part of the story of the man looking like King Louis XIV(according to her, her father told her that the prisoner was an older half brother of the the King).

The Regent is said to have told Louis XV the secret on his majority and the young king is said to have sadly said that if the prisoner was still alive, he would have freed the man. Louis XV is said to have told Louis XVI and he told Marie Antoinette but they supposedly died with the secret.

Part of the reason the story of a secret twin or brother became so popular was that Louis XIV and his real brother Philippe(yes, Louis XIV had a real brother of that name born two years later) had unusual births for the time. Their parents, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, hated each other and did not sleep together regularly and Louis XIII had homosexual tendencies as well. Louis XIV was born 22 years after his parents' marriage. So much time had passed that many doubted Louis XIV was the legitimate heir--at one point, some even said Cardinal Richelieu was the father(and they dared to say it to Louis XIV's face--the king is said to have calmly said that if Richelieu was his father, then he owed him more than he already did! Louis XIV was also known to rarely refer to his father). Louis XIV resembled his mother while his brother resembled his father closely.

Many stories in France have the Man in the Iron Mask being either the actual father of Louis XIV(usually said to be a Bourbon cousin) or a half brother born to Anne of Austria from an affair that predated Louis XIV or the king's twin brother--a theory that Dumas popularised.

As to Louis XIV's real brother, Philippe I,Duc d Orleans, he was born 2 years later and never imprisoned. He was called Monsieur by the court and he lived lavishly at court with Louis XIV at Versailles, etc and Philippe had his own palaces as well. He was very close to his brother. He was a flamboyant homosexual but married twice and was the father of the Regent and daughters who became ancestresses of Spanish Bourbons,Habsburg emperors and all kings of France after Louis XIV descend from him as well. In fact most Catholic European royalty descends from the brother of Louis XIV in some way. For instance, he was the great grandfather of Louis XV and Marie Anoinette and Great great grandfather of her husband.

You can see a good depiction of Louis XIV and his brother Philippe in the movie Vatel.

Tripzibit said...

Great comment, thanx a lot for your information :)

Anonymous said...

Your welcome. I find the story of the Man in the Iron Mask and the times of Louis XIV very interesting. BTW, although Dumas popularised the twin theory in his book, he was a good historian so he had Louis XIV's real younger brother(Philippe,Duc d Orleans, AKA Monsieur) as a minor character in all 3 books of the Man in the Iron Mask cycle but movie versions usually omitted the real Philippe in the story as non-French audiences(Monsieur is well known in France) might find this confusing as the fictional twin was named Philippe as well in Dumas' version of the story.

I remember going to Versailles once after the Leonardo Dicaprio version of the Man in the Iron Mask and the tour guides pointing out the pictures of Louis XIV's brother in the Salon of the Bull's eye(and other parts of the Chateau) and the American teenagers in attendance being confused--"wasn't Philippe the Man in the Iron Mask? why is his picture here?"--one of the guides with better English tried to explain some of the history.

BTW, your whole blog is awesome.

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